Category: Games

Optimism about the threat of nuclear war

From an email from Trey Howard, I won’t impose further double-indent on it:

“I recently came across the pessimistic Edward Luce column you retweeted, and wanted to offer some trends that I think point in the opposite direction. I offer these as someone who was much more worried about nuclear war in the first 2 weeks of the war, before the factors below became apparent.

  1. Putin has been willing to revise his objectives. The Russian army fell back from Kyiv, did not launch an amphibious assault on Odessa, and has not attempted to storm the Azovstal steelworks. All of these indicate that Putin is receiving some objective information about the poor performance of his military, and is revising his plans accordingly.
  2. Putin’s objectives are amorphous. What does it mean to de-nazify Ukraine? What does control of “the Donbass” mean exactly? These kinds of objectives are susceptible to BS-ing for the domestic audience. They are not like “Kill Zelensky” or “Capture Kyiv”. They permit Putin an off-ramp at any time he wants to declare victory.
  3. NATO is unwilling to intervene directly. If anything, I have heard less chatter about no fly zones since the first two weeks of the war.
  4. Putin has not escalated to chemical weapons, despite having an opportunity to use them effectively on the Azovstal works.
  5. NATO has limited the supply of weapons to short range weapons that a) do not require a complex supply chain of trainers and contractors close to Ukraine or b) are unlikely to cause mass casualties in Russia itself (airplanes, tactical ballistic missiles). This seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. For all the breathless talk of “heavy weapons” being shipped to Ukraine, it is hard for me to imagine that Russia sees T-72 tanks, towed howitzers, or M113 personnel carriers from the 1970s as tilting the balance. They have thousands of comparable weapons in storage.
  6. Russia has not attempted to interdict the flow of weapons inside NATO countries. Not even “plausibly deniable” things like train derailments or warehouse fires. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the GRU committed attacks in NATO countries in the years before the war started.
  7. Putin is not threatened at home. If anything, support for the invasion seems to have increased. The Russian economy has not collapsed as some predicted, and this will bolster support for him.
  8. Russia continues to make payments on its foreign debt. To me this indicates a long-term outlook and is not the kind of thing one would do if contemplating murder-suicide at a national level.
  9. Russia has not increased the readiness of its strategic nuclear forces (like putting SSBNs to sea).
  10. Russia is actively recruiting foreign mercenaries and seems likely to order a general mobilization soon. Some people see this as a sign of escalation, but I think it is more likely that Putin realizes that he needs more bodies to garrison captured territory. Additional conscripts will eventually allow some of the BTGs in action to rotate away from the front lines. It will increase his perception that time is on his side. More troops will make it less likely that Ukraine can inflict a decisive defeat on Russian forces in the Donbass (which might really precipitate tactical nuclear weapon use).
  11. Russia is taking over administration of infrastructure in captured territory, and is preparing residents to switch to the ruble. These are long-term thinking measures consistent with a power planning to occupy and administer new territory (which they would not want to irradiate).
  12. Putin thinks that the political winds are on his side. Viktor Orban being re-elected, Le Pen performing better than her prior showing, and the coming midterms in the USA all point to populations becoming impatient at the high inflation and constant drumbeat of scary news coming out of Ukraine. Of course, the biggest break for him would be Trump 2024…

I disregard all public statements from Russia (whether from state TV, Putin himself, or lesser officials). There is never going to be a situation where the Russians say “relax, we aren’t going to use the nukes”. They want to keep us guessing. I look at the trends above instead.

Many of these trends are bad news for Ukraine and the west in general, but they are factors that make nuclear war less likely. As you said on a recent podcast “things are never as bad or as good as you might think.””

TC again: That’s it, have a cheery day!

The doctrine of nuclear deterrence must evolve

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, about 3x the normal length.  Here is one excerpt:

From the vantage point of 2022, it is clear that the norms doctrine, while it served useful functions for decades — just as did the MAD doctrine — has its limitations. The most obvious is that norms tend to weaken and eventually collapse.

Once the use of nuclear weapons became classified as “unthinkable,” political actors tried to extend that designation to other kinds of weapons. In doing so, they weakened the concept of unthinkability. The broader category of “weapons of mass destruction,” for example, was also supposed to be unthinkable. Yet Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used them against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. This led some countries to support Iran, but Saddam remained in power until former President George W. Bush led the war against Iraq roughly two decades later.

In 2012, former President Barack Obama told Russian President Vladimir Putin that they should agree that chemical weapons should not be deployed in Syria, as that would constitute a “red line.” Syria went ahead and used them, and there was no major kinetic U.S. military response, thereby erasing that red line and possibly others.

The pattern is evident: Once the category of “unthinkable” weapons is created, it is expanded so much that it loses its credibility. Politicians tend to spend down the reputational capital that their predecessors build up.


Another problem with the norms doctrine is that, sooner or later, there is value in breaking a norm — precisely because the norm was successful.

Think back to your high school. Your teachers probably set up behavioral norms that most everyone followed. That left room for a rebel who dared to defy those norms, if only for attention and to signal non-conformity.

With nuclear weapons, it’s not as if Putin or some other political “rebel” would use a bomb to make a point or to seem cool. Rather, Putin has been finding it useful to threaten the West and NATO with possible nuclear weapons use. If enough scary threats are issued, the use of nuclear weapons no longer seems unthinkable. And as the unthinkability norm erodes, eventually someone — Putin or not — may use nukes.

Finally, as mentioned above, the norms doctrine assumed the major nuclear powers all had a stake in a status quo…

Cameo by Thomas Schelling!

Solve for the wartime presentation equilibrium

Ukrainian officials have run more than 8,600 facial recognition searches on dead or captured Russian soldiers in the 50 days since Moscow’s invasion began, using the scans to identify bodies and contact hundreds of their families in what may be one of the most gruesome applications of the technology to date.

The country’s IT Army, a volunteer force of hackers and activists that takes its direction from the Ukrainian government, says it has used those identifications to inform the families of the deaths of 582 Russians, including by sending them photos of the abandoned corpses.

The Ukrainians champion the use of face-scanning software from the U.S. tech firm Clearview AI as a brutal but effective way to stir up dissent inside Russia, discourage other fighters and hasten an end to a devastating war.

Here is the full story.  Maybe this feels gruesome, but I am not sure we should let ourselves be led by the nose of our intuitions here.  Furthermore, we have zero information on its effectiveness, or lack thereof.  So I am not ready to have an opinion on this practice.  We all seem fine with the idea of killing, so squeamishness on the “presentation side” probably is undertheorized.

I am more interested in what the next step looks like.  If this stands a chance of being effective, how might you try to “improve” the presentation?  Record death screams and send them in audio files?  A virtual reality version?  A “director’s cut” for the more committed audience members?

How about AI that scans the battlefield for fights your preferred side seems to be winning?  Then do face scans of the opposing soldiers and using internet, text, or phone calls, invite their relatives to watch the struggle.  Wouldn’t a fair number of family members click on that link?

Might some people crowdsource funding for extra footage, or shoot it themselves?  I read this (New Yorker) report about the recent Brooklyn terror attack:

Many [bystanders] also responded as no one should ever do in an active-shooter scenario—when presented with an escape route, they instead stopped to record videos.

A yet more advanced version of the footage could throw in deep fakes of some kind?  CGI?

Do you find this all more repulsive yet?  Ever watched a war movie?  We seem to accept those in full stride.  It would be weird — but perhaps a coherent view nonetheless — to think “killing fine, phony movie of killing fine, movie of real killing just terrible.”

What do you all think?

For the initial pointer I thank Maxwell.


Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the Biden administration would be prepared to use all its sanctions tools against China if Beijing moved aggressively toward Taiwan.

“I believe we’ve shown we can” impose significant pain on aggressive countries, as evidenced by sanctions against Russia, Yellen told lawmakers Wednesday as she testified before the House Financial Services Committee. “I think you should not doubt our ability and resolve to do the same in other situations.”

Here is the full Bloomberg story.  If I were Xi Jinping, I would be heartened and encouraged by that ultimately rather lukewarm threat.

The game theory of attacking nuclear power plants

From my latest Bloomberg column (do I really need to indent my own text?):

“Putin would like to find a way of making nuclear threats without quite incurring the liability from … making nuclear threats.

Enter nuclear power plants. When Russian forces attack the plant, there is some chance that something goes wrong, such as a radiation spill. But more likely than not, the plant will hold up, and most dangerous processes can be shut down and the very worst outcomes avoided. You can think of Putin as choosing a “nuclear radiation deployment” with only some small probability.

Why might he do this? Well, he is showing that the use of broader nuclear deployments is not out of the question. He is also showing that he is willing to take a huge risk.

Most of all, he doesn’t much have to fear retaliation. The Western powers cannot know if these nuclear attacks are deliberate strategy or simply an accident of tactics in the field, and so — if only for that reason — they will not respond with a major escalation. If Russian forces moved on Estonia, they might be courting a very serious NATO response. But not in this situation.

You don’t have to believe that Putin sat in his lair rubbing his hands as he dreamed up this diabolical strategy. It’s also possible that the attack on the nuclear power plant started by mistake, or was ordered by lower-level commanders. Putin then simply allowed it to continue, perhaps out of a general love of chaos. At the very least, he did not consider it a priority to stop the attack.

Game theory doesn’t always have to be about explicit plans and intentions. It also can help explain why “invisible hand” mechanisms lead people to a particular point in the strategy tree, as if they had those strategies as conscious intentions.

Attacking the nuclear power plant also illuminates some other parts of game theory. Ukraine and its people are taking very heavy losses and are hoping for NATO to intervene on their behalf. If the conflict seems riskier to all of Europe, and not just Ukraine, the odds of such intervention improve.

In this sense, the attack on the nuclear power plant does not have to be entirely bad for Ukrainian prospects in the war. The Ukrainian leadership is rightly horrified by this attack, due to the risks for Ukrainian citizens. But the attack could also mobilize European public opinion on behalf of military intervention for Ukraine. If the war greatly increases chances for the spread of dangerous nuclear radiation, then the likelihood that Germany, France, Turkey and other nations will intervene also greatly increases.

Notice, however, that the Russian position here may be sounder than it at first appears. European citizens care more about radiation in Ukraine than do American citizens, for reasons of simple proximity. Putin may realize he can put Europeans at greater risk so long as he doesn’t provoke an intervention from the U.S. military, which would probably be decisive. It is a risky strategy that he might just get away with.

If you are the Ukrainian government, your incentive is to make the nuclear power plant attack sound as risky and precarious as possible. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has done exactly that.”

I am sorry to say that the column does not have an especially optimistic ending.

Norway Chess cancels Alexander Grischuk

He is kicked out of a forthcoming tournament, even though he has been critical of the war in Ukraine.  In case you haven’t already guessed, Grischuk is Russian in his citizenship.  This stuff never stays very accurate or fair.

Here is more on Grischuk and other Russian players, a grim and deeply unfair story (in German, covers Nepo, Svidler, Dubov, others who have spoken out).  To be clear, I am strongly in support of pulling all tournaments from Russia and Belarus, as FIDE has done.  It is targeting the individuals that I object to.

Elsewhere, from an email:

The editors of the “Studies in the History of Philosophy” have decided not to pursue the project of publishing a thematic issue devoted to Russian religious philosophy.

Russian cats are now cancelled too.

I would say this: if you are working in the United States and are from Russia, your chance of a big promotion just went way down, no matter what your political views.  They are not going to make Chekhov Captain of the Enterprise, not now at least.

As for the oligarchs, I am all in favor of initiating court cases against Russian law breakers, whether in domestic courts or at The Hague.  And if those individuals are found guilty, and the process generates yacht seizure as the appropriate remedy, bring it on.  But just taking the yachts without true due process?  Nein, Danke.

How much expected surplus do we want Putin to have?

My Bloomberg column is on another topic altogether, starting with bank runs, but this part I can reframe in terms of principal-agent theory.  We want to squeeze Putin so hard that he “cries Uncle”, yet without eliminating his surplus so much that he takes a lot of extra risk.  Hard to achieve both of those ends at the same time!  Here is one bit reflecting that dilemma:

For a point of contrast on how decentralized incentives operate on each side, consider the nuclear alert ordered by Putin on Sunday. The chance of Russian nuclear weapons being ordered into actual use is small. But Putin faces a dilemma as he attempts to manipulate the decentralized systems of the Russian military. If he gave an order for a nuclear strike on a Ukrainian city, would the Russian military obey it? Whoever did would know they could be liable for war crimes.

The outcomes here are impossible to forecast, but the uncertainty works in favor of the Ukrainians. If it became known that Putin ordered a nuclear strike and was ignored, for example, he would become the proverbial “paper tiger” rather quickly and might lose power altogether.

These decentralized mechanisms potentially shift the entire logic of the war. Russia has to win fairly quickly, or these and other forces will increasingly work against it. Ukraine thus can fight for a military stalemate, but Russia cannot. The Russian forces must take increasing levels of risk, even if those risks have what decision theorists call “negative expected value” — that is, they serve as desperate gambles and on average worsen the Russian situation.

Of course that makes the war increasingly dangerous, and not just for the Ukrainians. If Putin is afraid the forces in the field won’t always carry out his orders, for example, he may order the launch of 10 tactical nukes rather than just one.

As AK would say, “Have a nice day.”

A simple model of what Putin will do for an endgame

I would start with two observations:

1. Putin’s goals have turned out to be more expansive than many (though not I) expected.

2. There are increasing doubts about Putin’s rationality.

I’ll accept #1, which has been my view all along, but put aside #2 for the time being.

In my simple model, in addition to a partial restoration of the empire, Putin desires a fundamental disruption to the EU and NATO.  And much of Ukraine is not worth his ruling.  As things currently stand, splitting Ukraine and taking the eastern half, while terrible for Ukraine (and for most of Russia as well), would not disrupt the EU and NATO.  So when Putin is done doing that, he will attack and take a slice of territory to the north.  It could be eastern Estonia, or it could relate to the Suwalki corridor, but in any case the act will be a larger challenge to the West because of explicit treaty commitments.  Then he will see if we are willing to fight a war to get it back.

There are fixed costs to mobilization and incurring potential public wrath over the war, so as a leader you might as well “get the most out of it.”  Our best hope is that the current Russian operations in Ukraine go sufficiently poorly that it does not come to this.

Addendum: And some good questions from Rob Lee.

The gender equality paradox seems to hold for chess

The gender-equality paradox refers to the puzzling finding that societies with more gender equality demonstrate larger gender differences across a range of phenomena, most notably in the proportion of women who pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. The present investigation demonstrates across two different measures of gender equality that this paradox extends to chess participation (N = 803,485 across 160 countries; age range: 3–100 years), specifically that women participate more often in countries with less gender equality. Previous explanations for the paradox fail to account for this finding. Instead, consistent with the notion that gender equality reflects a generational shift, mediation analyses suggest that the gender-equality paradox in chess is driven by the greater participation of younger players in countries with less gender equality. A curvilinear effect of gender equality on the participation of female players was also found, demonstrating that gender differences in chess participation are largest at the highest and lowest ends of the gender-equality spectrum.

Here is the paper by Allon Vishkin, via @autismcrisis.

Solve for the Eastern equilibrium

Russia’s sabre-rattling in Ukraine has reignited the debate in Finland as to whether the Nordic country should join Nato, defying demands from Moscow that seek to limit expansion of the military alliance in Europe.

Both president Sauli Niinisto and prime minister Sanna Marin used their new year addresses to underscore that Finland retained the option of seeking Nato membership at any time.

“Let it be stated once again: Finland’s room to manoeuvre and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for Nato membership, should we ourselves so decide,” Niinisto said.

Here is more from Richard Milne at the FT.

Some simple game theory of Omicron

Let’s say that everyone is totally reckless, and they go to Christmas Eve “Omicron parties.”  A week or two from now the virus has cleared their systems and I, who stay at home and blog, can then go out and frolic.  Even if they stay sick, or if they die, they are removed as sources of potential infections for others (see below for new variants, possibly from the immunocompromised).

If I know that is happening, I find it easy to stay at home for a week.  I look forward to my pending freedom.  In other words, right now my behavior becomes safer.  I engage in intertemporal substitution.

Alternately, let’s say that quite a few people decide to behave more safely.  They stay at home and avoid the Omicron parties, and furthermore they go about with a mask in Whole Foods and don’t go to bars at all.  The Omicron pandemic, instead of being over in two weeks, can run on for months, depending on the exact numbers of course.  There is a ready stock of “not yet infected with Omicron” potential victims to keep the virus circulating.  And that means ongoing risk for me.

Returning to my decision calculus, I can wait a week but I cannot stay at home for a month or two.  So I know I am going to go out, and I expect I am going to get Omicron.  So I might as well go out now.  My behavior becomes riskier.

Get the picture?  If one set of people behave more safely, another set takes more risks.  And vice versa.

This is one reason why moral exhortation, or for that matter policy interventions, may be less than effective in our current moment.

It is also a reason why telling people “don’t worry about it!” doesn’t fully translate at the collective level either.

Of course you can modify these scenarios with reinfection risk, new variants, and other factors.

And now it is over…

With both the Beatles and chess peaking this year in terms of media coverage, at times I have felt like I am thirteen years old again.  But now the WCC match is over, and Magnus Carlsen has solidified his claim to GOAT.  Carlsen has now won five such matches, and he has always won when he has needed to.  Since he broke through the 2800 rating point, he has never fallen below it, not once.  As a study in “management,” he is most of all a study in consistency.  Nepo played even with him for five games, but then fell apart.  Carlsen does not fall apart.  Karjakin and Caruana played even with him for a whole match, but when the pressure was on in the rapid tiebreaks guess who was reaching new peaks?

I suspect this last match means the death of the slow classical format for the world championship.  The last three matches have been deadly dull.  You can cite particular reasons for the lack of excitement, but the fundamental problem is that the players are too good and a very well played chess game is a clear draw.  It is hard to see how that gets reversed.  On top of that the match format encourages risk-aversion and openings such as the Petroff for Black.  There is too much advance openings preparation.

A Carlsen-Firouzja rapid match is what I wish to see, and somehow I expect the market will oblige.  To have a repeat of what we just witnessed — even if the challenger shows up as the inspired player — just isn’t going to cut it.  The cost is that we may not have a well-defined world champion by the time the next cycle moves toward its climax.

So, as of today, I predict that chess fundamentally has changed and won’t go back.  No more Capablanca vs. Alekhine or Fischer vs. Spassky at slow speed.  That’s just going to mean too many drawish opening choices.

Addendum: Please put aside your barbaric talk about Fischer Random 960.  It obliterates the ability of the viewer to make sense of the board, so why bother?  The rapid matches sponsored by Carlsen and others already have shown there are simpler, more viewer-friendly, and more intuitive ways to restore excitement to the games.

Lessons for remote work, from professional chess

During the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional (offline) chess tournaments were prohibited and instead held online. We exploit this unique setting to assess the impact of remote–work policies on the cognitive performance of individuals. Using the artificial intelligence embodied in a powerful chess engine to assess the quality of chess moves and associated errors, we find a statistically and economically significant decrease in performance when an individual competes remotely versus offline in a face-to-face setting. The effect size decreases over time, suggesting an adaptation to the new remote setting.

Here is the Economic Journal paper by Steffen Künn, Christian Seel, and Dainis Zegners.  Via tekl.

Simple advice for watching and understanding on-line chess

Yes, the computer evaluations are extremely useful.  But they are measuring the quality of the position when two computers are playing.  Yet most of the games you care about tend to be two humans playing each other.  And those humans do not play like computers.  The computer might say the game is even, and maybe it is with perfect play, but one side can be much harder (easier) to play than the other.  So I suggest this trick.  Go to, which covers top games (only).  Scan down the vertical list of all possible moves and consider the distribution of outcomes.  If the top move is great for White, but all the others are not, robustness is low, especially if the top move for White is not super-obvious (such as recapturing a Queen, etc.).  If all the sequences look very good for White (Black), you will know that for humans the position probably is somewhat better for White than the single computer evaluation number will indicate.  Robustness against human error will be present.

For the Carlsen match, here is a good Twitch stream, currently with Caruana as commentator.